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The Disappearing Spoon, by Sam Kean

July 17, 2012

I bought this book for two reasons. One, to help increase my knowledge of everything and two, to be fascinating at dinner parties. It has certainly succeeded in the first goal and I will test the second if I am ever invited to a dinner party.

ImageWhen I first picked up The Disappearing Spoon, I expected it to be a collection of humorous semi-interesting anecdotes about the chemical elements. Instead, it is so much more. Sam Kean explores the entirety of the periodic table via a number of themes, branching from basic chemistry and quantum physics to politics, history, art, literature and pop culture. As he does this, he also delves into the lives of the people behind the table, from the intellectually narcissistic Dmitri Mendeleev to the atom-smashing staff at the University of California, Berkeley. This far surpasses the humble collection of errata I had been expecting.

Fitting for a popular science book, Kean assumes no knowledge of scinece or the periodic table on the part of the reader. Instead, he takes his time to explain things in plain english. With sixth form chemistry under my belt, i did this frustratingly facile to begin with but when we reached radioactivity and quantum interactions, I was glad for the illuminating prose.

Kean’s explanations of scientific concepts and principles gels well with the rest of his writing. He writes in an easy style, neither too casual nor too formal. The Disappearing Spoon is not a textbook but neither is it trying too hard to be achingly hip. The book is not unputdownable but is is certainly only-put-down-a-few-times-able.

Though I am not sure that everyone will be enthralled by the elements, the tone of the book makes it accessible for all. If you want to know the periodic table as more than just a series of numbers and symbols, this is a brilliant book to start with. It is also a useful text if you want to be fascinating at your next soiree.

P.S. The book’s title comes from an amusing scientific parlour trick. Gallium, superficially similar to aluminium, has a low melting point, just over room temperature. Thus, you can give guests gallium spoons to stir their tea with then giggle as they stare in confusion as the spoons disappear into their Earl Grey.

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